County Social Services inundated
By Anessa Myers
Published in News on April 5, 2009 2:00 AM
Case workers Maria Sharrow sits one of the desks in the Department of Social Services administration hallway as she looks over case paperwork. A volunteer was helping with the stacks of paper on the desk earlier that day.
The stacks of paperwork get so high nowadays that some Wayne County Social Services workers often have to come in on their days off to try to keep up.
It's not just that they don't want to fall behind in their jobs, or even the fact that they county could fined for not processing the applications fast enough. They know some family, some child, some elderly person, might have to do without food or medical help if those forms aren't filled out.
"If you don't process these applications, some families may not eat," Social Services Director Debbie Jones said.
Ms. Jones said she tries to keep the workload spread so that employees only have to work an extra day or two a month, but many still find themselves working on Fridays, even Saturdays.
Maria Sharrow is one of those workers. The county doesn't pay overtime so their only alternative is compensatory time. But that just means falling further behind.
"It's Catch-22," Ms. Jones said.
Still, they come in.
"My heart leads me here," Ms. Sharrow said.
She said she has heard many stories during her 29 years as a case worker -- of families who couldn't make ends meet, of single fathers and mothers who couldn't put food on the table and of disabled or elderly men and women who couldn't afford health care.
But in all of those years, she said, she has never heard so many stories of people struggling as she has in the past few months.
"This is the worst. It's overwhelming," Ms. Sharrow said.
She works cases in the Social Services' different programs, like food stamps, family and children Medicaid and adult Medicaid.
And the department has seen a substantial increase of people coming in for help in two programs in particular -- the food stamps and family and children Medicaid programs -- mostly because many family providers have lost their jobs or can't afford to pay all of their bills with their income.
There are currently more than 7,000 active cases in the food stamp program.
And the family and children Medicaid program, which is helps families with children receive health care, has about 11,000 active cases.
But there are only 34 case workers to handle all 17,000 of those cases between the two programs.
And more people seek help every day.
The application process isn't a simple one.
Case workers have to check on the applicant's employment and financial records, call their references and check other facts to make sure need is real. And they must keep tabs on the case after that, to make sure circumstances have not changed.
Each Wayne County case worker will likely average 500 active cases a year -- not including the hundreds of applications they have to process for people who don't qualify for benefits.
Even with the increased workload, case workers try to spend as much time as needed to ensure each person in need gets the best service possible.
Ms. Sharrow said that earlier that same day, she worked for hours trying get an elderly couple some financial help with the health care bills.
"I tried to find a dollar here or a dollar there that they owe at doctor's offices to put toward their deductible, so it would be that much less that they would have to spend," she said.
The hours paid off. The couple will now pay less for their health care.
"It just takes time and determination," Ms. Sharrow said.
But time and determination might not be enough for everyone.
"We're seeing more people than we've ever seen," Ms. Jones said.
In January, there were 619 new food stamp program applications, and in February, there were an additional 546 applications for the program, she said.
Family and children Medicaid cases have also increased. In January, there were 10,736 active cases. Currently, there are more than 11,000.
And the more new faces, the more time each case worker has to take to explain benefits and what each person does or does not qualify for.
"You can't tell people not to apply," Ms. Sharrow said.
She said that almost everyone has been adversely affected by the downturn in the economy, some just more than others.
If you walk into the food stamps waiting room, it's "striking," Ms. Jones said.
Most days it is filled wall-to-wall. And the people you see in there, applying for help, are ones you wouldn't expect to see.
"Sometimes it almost looks like a construction zone in there because there are men that are on their lunch break from working. Some have their tool belts or their boots. But these men still can't afford to pay for food for themselves or their families," Ms. Jones said.
Even people who once had well-paying jobs have been coming in and asking for help.
An engineer who was laid off lost his home and was disowned by his family, Ms. Sharrow said. The man is now homeless.
Another man was laid off from a computer company and can't afford to keep his family adequately fed.
Neither qualified for benefits.
Neither do many others who are seeking benefits for the first time.
Between November and January, Ms. Sharrow said she processed more than 100 applications, and about 30 percent of those applications were people that are new to Social Services.
How many of those 30 percent met the criteria to get some sort of aid?
"None of them," she said. "They are making an effort. They work hard and make just enough money, or have made just enough money in the last few months, not to qualify."
The new income limit for an individual for adult Medicaid is $903 a month.
For example, if you make more than that amount, and you need health care benefits, the case workers will look at the income level for the "medically needy," Ms. Sharrow said.
That amount is $242.
"The difference in their income and the $242 is the amount they have to pay for a deductible every month, out of pocket," she said. "Tell me who can afford to pay $600 a month for health care."
"For the mom or dad who works hard, they can't get anything," she said. "People just fall through the cracks."
"The common denominator I hear is, 'What am I supposed to do?'" she said.
Most of the time, she doesn't have the answer.
But Ms. Sharrow manages not to give up hope. And she tries to convey that hope to the people she sees.
"I believe in making a difference in one person's life. Yes, sometimes I have to deliver bad news, but I can do it with grace and not diminish the reason they're here," she said.
Many of the people that step through her door are already humiliated, she said. She tries to help them cope, referring them to other sources of help, such as churches, community organizations, charities or free medical clinics.
But to do that, they still have to go through the application process with Social Services first.
"Most of the time, they have to see a denial from Social Services for them to see you," Ms. Sharrow said.
And many older adults have to apply for Social Security and disability benefits to be able to receive free health care.
That can make people feel even more ashamed, Ms. Sharrow said.
But there might be change for the good on the horizon.
As of Wednesday, food stamp recipients will see an automatic 14-percent increase in the benefits they receive, Ms. Jones said.
And the department may see some salvation in months to come with help from federal stimulus money.
Ms. Jones said that the state is expected to see $4.6 million for social services, and although she isn't sure how much will be allotted to Wayne County, she is expecting at least some money.
"We plan to use that for administration," she said.
Since many of the case workers currently come in on Fridays anyway, Ms. Jones said that the money will be used to pay current workers overtime.
"That way they can come in and work on Fridays at no cost to the county or state," she said.
The director would ultimately like to see more case workers in the food stamp and family and children Medicaid departments. But with budgetary restraints and space issues, she knows those additions won't likely happen in the next few years.
So case workers have to keep plugging away at their stacks of paperwork and endless phone calls, hoping to help as many people as they possibly can. And a few people's eyes have been opened.
"There were some people that thought there wasn't a use for Social Services," Ms. Jones said. "Those people are feeling a little different now. They understand it's necessary."
"Most of us are only two or three paychecks away from sitting on the other side of the table," Ms. Jones said. "You never know what circumstances you may be in.
"... People are just glad we're here, and they've got somewhere to turn."
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